Feathard Lady stormed to the forefront of the Smurfit Champion Hurdle picture as she extended her unbeaten run to seven under a peach of a ride from Ruby Walsh in the Stan James Christmas Hurdle at Sandown.
The blue riband has been dominated over the last two seasons by Irish raiders and following this 12-length triumph over Self Defense, there are now five horses from the Emerald Isle in the top seven in the betting for the big one in March.
Walsh never had an anxious moment on the 6-4 chance as he completed a double following the earlier success of Hoo La Baloo on his first day back from a shoulder injury sustained at the end of November.
So impressed were the bookmakers by the stylish display of Colm Murphy’s mare that she is as short as 5-1 (from 16s) for the Champion with Coral.
Murphy has the luxury of also training Brave Inca, who is set to clash with his stable companion in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on January 29.
Murphy is relishing the prospect of seeing his stars cross swords and is still surprised at the huge improvement shown by Feathard Lady, who had won a Fairyhouse handicap under top-weight on her previous outing.
“I admit I’d have been surprised if she hadn’t run well today, but to win the way she did is really something else,” he said.
“At home nothing can get her off the bridle and I wouldn’t know how she compares with Brave Inca as they are like chalk and cheese.
“He’s a gentleman and she’s a pure lady. He’s a big, gross horse but she takes her work in her stride.”
Feathard Lady is owned by the Lord Of The Ring syndicate, which comprises a dozen Irishmen who frequent Butler’s Sports Bar in Fethard, and Murphy added: “The boys all drink in the same pub and are hoping she can go all the way.
“The Champion hurdle is obviously the big target, but the Irish champion is the next stop when she will meet Brave Inca.”
Walsh oozed confidence and was in control when jumping his mount to the front two out, where Royal Shakespeare was not so fluent.
The combination then pulled clear, with Self Defense catching the latter for second on the run to the line.
Emma Lavelle, trainer of the runner-up, said: “He keeps running well in these sorts of races and surely it won’t be long until he wins one.
“He is definitely the toughest horse I have trained, but how can you not be impressed by the winner?”
Royal Shakespeare’s trainer Steve Gollings said: “The key to him is the ground. He travelled much better than I expected him to considering all the rain they have had.
“He’ll have a little break now and then we will look for another race in the (BHB) Order of Merit.
“He’s probably got Inglis Drever to beat in that but it is a nice prize and we’ll be giving it our best shot.”
Darkness is the new favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase following his dramatic success under Tony McCoy in the Stan James Feltham Novices’ Chase.
Turning for home in the contest, Darkness looked a lost cause as he was last of the five runners and being vigorously ridden as Zabenz and Bewleys Berry made the best of their way home.
For the leaders it turned out to be a long way home, however, and Darkness made stealthy progress after the second-last to join issue at the final obstacle and pull three lengths clear of Zabenz, who held Bewleys Berry by a head for second.
Charlie Egerton nominated Cheltenham as the next port of call for his 13-8 winner and said: “I was concerned at halfway but that’s just him, he has his own style of doing things and when you think he was three lengths clear at the post it was some performance.
“He’s definitely better going left-handed and will go straight to the Festival. He’s already had five runs and I want to take him there fresh.”
The bookmakers were impressed, with Coral slashing him from 10-1 to 5s and Ladbrokes making the six-year-old a 6-1 favourite (from 8s) for the Cheltenham feature.
Hoo La Baloo, sent off the 10-11 favourite, came home alone as his three rivals all crashed out of the Grade Two Stan James Wayward Lad Novices' Chase.
The race lost much of its lustre with the late withdrawal of likely favourite Racing Demon due to the quick ground, but it was nevertheless an incident-packed event.
The Paul Nicholls-trained market leader took up his usual front-running role as Tony McCoy and Exotic Dancer came to grief at the first fence, stumbling on landing.
Flying Spirit was the next to go, firing Timmy Murphy out of the saddle, leaving just Hoo La Baloo and Crossbow Creek.
The pair were still standing coming to the second-last but Crossbow Creek failed to take off and took a crashing fall that left him winded for a short while.
Walsh only had to put Hoo La Baloo right at the final fence to coast home in splendid isolation.
Nicholls said: “He jumped well and kept galloping and it’s good to see Ruby back with a winner. The only thing that concerns me is that he needs to go right-handed and that makes the Arkle no more than a 50-50 chance.
“I could see him coming back here for the Queen Mother Celebration Chase and he could go to Punchestown, which is another right-handed course.”
Emphasising that good ground is of paramount importance, Nicholls added: “He’s better on this ground, but he’s a very enthusiastic horse who takes a lot out of himself in his races. I do have other horses who could go for the Arkle like Cerium and Cornish Sett.”
Despite Nicholls’ reservations on Cheltenham, the bookies cut Hoo La Baloo in their Arkle lists. He is 10-1 from 12 with William Hill and Victor Chandler, and 12s from 14s with Coral, while Paddy Power make him a 9-1 chance (from 12s).
Punters were dealt a blow in the opening stanjamesuk.com Handicap Hurdle when Albarino sprang a 16-1 surprise.
Although unconsidered in the betting, the six-year-old could be named the winner some way out following the exit at the fourth-last flight of Richard Johnson’s mount, 7-4 favourite Motorway.
His departure left Genuine Article vying for the lead with Gods Token, but all the time Tom Scudamore was sitting with a double handful on Albarino, trained by his grandfather Michael.
The combination jumped to the front at the second-last where Tanikos was the only danger, and readily pulled nine lengths clear of that rival who himself was caught for second in the last few strides by Nanga Parbat.
Albarino was having only his fourth outing for the Scudamore team and had finished a country mile behind Motorway on his penultimate start.
The success was thus greeted with surprise by his jockey, who said: “That’s a nice Christmas present for Granddad. The last time I rode him was at Sligo, when he was trained in Ireland, and he felt like a different horse today.”
Johnson had to give up his remaining rides, which included King George runner-up Monkerhostin, on whom Scudamore proved an able deputy.
The jockey suffered bruised ribs in the spill but managed to drive himself home. He will reassess his condition in the morning before determining whether he can partner One Knight, favourite for the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow.
Barry Geraghty, successful in the big one on Kicking King, capped a memorable afternoon when Afrad dominated the finish of the closing stanspoker.co.uk Handicap Hurdle.
The 6-1 chance went past Nonantais at the second-last flight and pulled clear of Only Vintage to give some compensation to trainer Nicky Henderson for the defeat of his fancied Crozan in the Feltham.